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A Blaze of Glory

With A Blaze of Glory, Jeff Shaara returns to the Civil War with a vibrant re-creation of one of the war's bloodiest engagements-the Battle of Shiloh.  It is the first in what is said to be "a trilogy of lesser known battles of the Civil War."  If you have an American history fan at home, this newly published book is a must.

My son picked it up for our trip to the beach and devoured it.  Like Shaara's other novels, A Blaze of Glory dramatizes the events of the battle through the voices and thoughts of the Officers, senior and junior alike, conscripts and enlisted men on both sides of the conflict.

Here's how the book begins:



February 22, 1862

“Keep those men out of there! They will not pass!”

Seeley’s words were harsh, loud, the men around him doing all they could to obey. The shotguns hung by each man’s side, and the lieutenant felt a shaking nervousness, was not ready to give the order that would point the long guns at these civilians. Like him, most of these troopers had never fired their weapons at anything but crude targets. Now the targets were men, surging toward him through the darkness, pushing their way toward the gaping doorways of the supply depot, a massive warehouse close to the river. Seeley had positioned his six horsemen in an even line, to block the way of the crowd, but the crowd was a mob, desperate and mindless, their goal the precious food and bundles of supplies that lay in the warehouse. A few cavalry meant nothing at all, and quickly the mob pushed into them, some slipping past, between the horses. He felt his own frustration rising, could feel the tinder­box explosiveness of the mob, and he shouted out again, could not help the higher pitch, his voice betraying the fear.


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

If so, you may want to give The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows a try.  It a story told through the written correspondence between a young author, Juliet Ashton, and many of the residents of Guernsey, an island in the English Chanel.  It is perfect for young adult and adult readers alike.

Guernsey was occupied by the Nazi's during WWII.  One evening when a dinner party runs late, a group of islanders is caught out after curfew.  Thinking quickly, Elizabeth, our heroine, tells the soldiers that they are a literary society and the soldiers escort the party home.  To keep up the ruse the group continues meeting and soon finds that they love books and that the society meetings have become a place of warmth and hope for these isolated islanders.

When one of the literary society members, Dawson, receives a copy of a Charles Lamb book with Juliet Ashton's name in it, he begins a correspondence with her, hoping to find more of Charles Lamb's work.  In short order, Juliet's imagination is captured by the people writing the letters to her and she decides to make them the subject of her second novel.

Once on the island, Juliet is swept up into the literary society and the lives of its members.  When asked about what books mean to her, Juliet simply replies, "So far my only thought is that reading keeps you from going gaga.”

And why Potato Peel, too?  One of the members of the group insisted that he would only attend if refreshments were served.  This was an available dish during the occupation and so the standard fare of the meetings.


Turtle in Paradise

It fascinates me how often children were sent away from home in our recent past because of overwhelming events.  As I discussed yesterday, the children of London were sent to the country side and abroad to avoid Hitler's bombs.  During the American Depression, many children were sent to live with relatives so that their parents could both work to make ends meet.  In Jennifer L. Holmes' novel Turtle in Paradise, we find one such child.

Turtle, the main character of the novel, is sent from her home in the city to live with her Aunt in Key West, Florida in 1935.  Never before has she seen such a strange place. The landscape, flora, fauna and people are completely unfamiliar. It is nothing like her home.  She also finds the behavior of her cousins to be much different than the behavior expected from her while living in the homes her mother cleaned.  The island is replete with mystery, adventure and discovery.  There is even a gentleman everyone calls simply "the writer" living in the town with lots of cats.  Can you guess who that might be?

She does have one thing in common with the people of Key West.  Everyone is poor.  Many of the people are relatives, including a grandmother whose house is full of treasures.  And everyone loves Shirley Temple.  Turtle, however is not Shirley Temple.  She looks at the world with the eyes of a child who knows struggle. Turtle can best be described by the quote found on the back of the book:

Folks have always told me that I look like Momma. Our eyes are different, though. I think the color of a person's eyes says a lot about them. Momma has soft blue eyes and all she sees are kittens and roses. My eyes are gray as soot, and I see things for what they are.

This is a great book for a child new to chapter books.  It is a Newbery Honor Book.  As for its merits as historical fiction, Jennifer L. Holmes does a terrific job of combining her family lore with America's past.


The Romeo and Juliet Club

I just finished a sweet novel called the Romeo and Juliet Code by Phoebe Stone.  A few of the 5th graders at school had requested it, so I added it to my reading list.  The cover art suggests more romance than it delivers, but for this fan of historical fiction, this novel hit the mark.

The beginning of the story reminded me of The Secret Garden.  A young independent girl ends up in the home of unknown relatives.  She has no friends and believes making any in Bottlebay, Maine is unlikely.  There is even a sick boy locked up in a room.  But the story quickly becomes its own.  While our main character reads The Secret Garden herself, her own story is revealed.

Felicity Bathburn Budwig, a perhaps neglected, but definitely adored daughter, is delivered to America by her parents to escape the bombs of London.  In the six months that proceed the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we have a chance to see our culture through the eyes of this British child.  Many of the historical elements of the novel are revealed through her own experiences, which include becoming an essential part of the Bathburn clan and stirring the soup (or pot) on more than one occasion.  The main plot revolves around 7 letters, 6 of which Felicity is determined to read and decipher. 

Mystery, Romance, War....What's not to like. 


One more thing about books and movies

After my post yesterday, I started wondering why I believe it is so important to read the book before I see the movie.  As I considered it, I realized it is because I love details and a beautifully crafted phrase.  As I mentioned, my son didn't read the Hunger Games, and still hasn't, but he kept coming to me, so that I could fill in the gaps left by the film.  After we covered the more complex themes, I finally told him, "If you want details, you need to read the books yourself."

The well written lines of a novel give me an opportunity to participate with the author in crafting the story.  I get to create the images in my mind and step into the world the author has created.  I bring my own experiences to bear and the story comes to life in a unique way.  When I see a movie, most of the decisions are made, down to the swelling music that hopes to dictate my mood.

I mentioned a few movie adaptations that I loved yesterday.  Off the top of my head, I can quickly think of three books for children whose adapted movies don't do the novels justice:

The Waterhorse by Dick King-Smith
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Do an experiment as a family.  Read the Books. Watch the Movies. Then, let  me know if I was right or wrong.  Happy reading and watching!


Hunger Games- Book or Movie?

I love books, but do have a few favorite screen adaptations- Little Women with Katherine Hepburn, The Prince of Tides and Wuthering Heights among them.  When it comes to my son, I long ago created a rule that he needed to read the book before he saw the movie.  This started because of Harry Potter, but has generally served us well.  That is, until the Hunger Games was released into theaters this spring.

Dystopian literature isn't his thing.  I am sure I have mentioned he consumes fantasy and historical fiction at an alarming rate, but rarely has he picked up a dystopian novel.  At 11 he prefers his villains to be obvious and the plots and settings to be other worldly.  As a result, he never even asked to read the Hunger Games. But when the movie came out, he was desperate to see it with the rest of his friends.  I broke my rule.  I let him see the film.  I answered all of his questions, as I had read the entire series.  Seeing the movie did not make him want to read the book.  And this is why I made my rule in the first place.

And now what do I think of the books. Suzanne Collins is a great writer.  The themes are complex and skillfully constructed, but may be difficult and alarming, particularly for the youngest of readers.  The book is targeted to "Older Readers" but, I realize that once something is popular it is hard to hold kids back, especially if they are begging to read.   Parents have asked if they should let their child read the book.  And my advice to these children's parents, and any other, is that you should read it first yourself. You know your kid.  Reading the novels will help ascertain your child's readiness and equip you to answer any questions they might have.

One other note:
If you read the first book you should read them all:  The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Together they have a very powerful message about human's ability to survive.


The Night Tourist

There is an outlet mall that feels like a ghost town on the way to Jekyll Island from Savannah,Ga.  I like to stop there because they have a Gap store and I always find jeans that fit me.  This year one of the store fronts had be taken over by a discount book retailer.  Elated by the discovery, I headed right to the hardback books for kids and young adult.  They were priced 4 for $15.  I found Odd and the Frost Giant by Neil Gaiman, a few of the Redwall books my son needed for his collection and a copy of The Night Tourist by Kathrine March.

I was pleased with my haul.  Hardbacks can be hard to find, as they quickly go out of print in favor of the more affordable paperback versions.  The Night Tourist is a book I have been longing to add to my own collection.  Jack Perdu, the book's protagonist, is an exaggerated caricature of my son--smart, introverted and usually found with his nose in a book.  While reading a book, Metamorphoses in Latin, in the middle of a cross walk, Jack is struck by a car.  It is a nearly fatal accident.  His father sends him to a doctor in New York City to be examined.

This trip sets off a series of events that are exciting and mysterious.  He makes an unexpected acquaintance at Grand Central station and with her explores parts of New York City he never imagined existed.  After meeting Euri, who is a ghost, Jack is convinced he can locate his dead mother and be reunited.  If you or your reader find this book as interesting as I did, you may want to try the sequel, The Twilight Prisoner.


Vacation Time is here!

I am getting ready to leave for vacation tomorrow. My beach reading list consists mostly of books for grown ups, so I won't be posting for a while. I will be back at it June 18th.

Check this out!

My post yesterday inspired my husband to put down his iPad and pick up a Ray Bradbury novel.


Ray Bradbury on Book Burning!

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, died this week.  While I am only an occasional reader of science fiction, preferring fantasy to possible reality, this is one of my favorite authors of the genre.   I must say that it is a cherished moment when I am able to talk with a high school student about their required reading list and hear them complain about Fahrenheit 451.  Usually the conversation goes something like this--"Why is a book called, Fahrenheit 451?"  I answer, "That is the temperature at which books will burn." With this I am left to only assess the wonder on the student's face.  Is it shock, awe, confusion, or disgust?

If you have an older reader, who is a rebel of sorts, why not introduce them to some of the best titles that have been banned and yes burned over the centuries.  Right here in America, titles such as Adventures of Huck Finn, Blubber, Catcher in the Rye, As I lay Dying, the Bible and Beloved are on the top of most lists you will find.  Bradbury can be found on these lists as well.

My seventh grade book club read Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury to kick off this past school year. The kids learned a lot about friendship, family and self by discussing Will, Jim, Charles and Mr. Dark.  If you haven't given this book a try, read it with your older readers.  You will never look at youth or a merry-go-round the same way again.

For a different look at Something Wicked this Way Comes, check out the authorized adaptation in a graphic novel format by Ray Bradbury and Ron Wimberly.


Odd and the Frost Giants

I was never a big fan of Mythology.  I read the requisite stories, which as I recall did not include any Homer.  Honestly, I have trouble keeping track of Roman vs. Greek Gods.  On the other hand, my son and his friends cannot get enough of Gods and Goddesses and Warriors and Maidens.  In early elementary, he devoured the traditional versions of the myths. Now, with the help of Rick Riordan, these ancient stories are colliding with modern day life and have expanded to include the Egyptian Gods and Goddesses as well.

And now the Norse myths are finding their way into our lives.  While I have not seen the movies, I understand Thor makes a great showing in both the movie named for him and the new Avengers movie.  His long time enemies the Frost Giant are also introduced.

If you have an early reader at home, who loves Thor, I have just read the perfect book for you.  Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman is a surprisingly warm tale of a boy named Odd.  Like many of the protagonists we have discussed here, Odd is orphaned when his Viking father perishes at sea.  This is only the beginning of Odd's bad luck. It continues with some other unlucky defining moments (which I will leave out here so as not to spoil this elegant tale) until Odd meets three companions: an eagle, a bear and a fox.  The quartet embarks on a journey that is filled with magic, adventure and compassion as they travel between the land of humans, Midgard, and the City of  the Gods, Asgard.

Inspired by traditional Norse mythology, this quiet novel is perfect for a child who is mastering chapter books.  The chapters are short and include detailed pencil drawings by Brett Helquist, illustrator of Lemony Snicket's  A Series of Unfortunate Events.  It has quickly become one of my favorites.

"The Frost Giant's gone," said Odd.  "I made him go away."  

"How?" asked the eagle. 

 "Magic," said Odd, and he smiled and thought, If magic means letting things do what they wanted to do or be what they wanted to be....  (excerpt from Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman)


Killer Angels

My son, Miller, has chosen Jeff Shaara's new novel Blaze of Glory for his beach novel this summer.  It is the first installation in a new series about the Battle at Shiloh fought during the Civil War.  He first fell in love with this genre when he read Michael Shaara's, father to Jeff, Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Killer Angels. This novel tells the story of the Battle at Gettysburg and would be good for older readers (7th-12th).

Killer Angels is wonderfully written. I read it last spring as we were driving to Pennsylvania to see the battlefield at Gettysburg for ourselves. The dialogue flows authentically and gives you a more intimate look at many of the biggest names of the Civil War.  Shaara relies heavily on the actual military personnel that were known to be present during the four days of battle.  He focuses on many of the key assaults, like Little Round Top, that determined the final outcome of what we have come to call simply Gettysburg. There is but one fictional character in the story-Buster Kilrain.  He is assigned to Joshua Chamberlain during Little Round Top and proves a friend and worthy warrior. Buster is a beautifully imagined and developed character.

If you haven't made your summer plans yet, you might consider checking one of the many Civil War Battlefields that are part of the national and state park systems.  It is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war, so all of the associated parks have special events planned.  If you are making your way to Gettysburg or Shiloh, pick up the Shaara's novels for a little insight and adventure.

Gettysburg Novels
  • Gods and Generals
  • Killer Angels
  • The Last Full Measure
  • Blaze of Glory